Lauren Groff’s "Florida" Awarded 15th Annual Story Prize

On March 6, the 15th annual Story Prize, awarded to the top short story collection of the year, went to Lauren Groff for Florida (Riverhead). Groff takes home the $20,000 first prize, as well as an engraved silver bowl, for the collection, which was also short-listed for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. The two runners-up—debut author Jamel Brinkley, whose A Lucky Man (Graywolf) won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner Deborah Eisenberg for Your Duck Is My Duck (Ecco), her fifth collection—received $5,000 each. The $1,000 Spotlight Award, for a collection of exceptional merit, went to Akil Kumarasamy for her debut collection Half Gods (Farrar).

three Story Prize finalists
The Story Prize 2019 finalists (l.-r.): Jamel Brinkley, Deborah Eisenberg, Lauren Groff
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

On March 6, the 15th annual Story Prize, awarded to the top short story collection of the year, went to Lauren Groff for Florida (Riverhead). Groff takes home the $20,000 first prize, as well as an engraved silver bowl, for the collection, which was also short-listed for the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction. The two runners-up—debut author Jamel Brinkley, whose A Lucky Man (Graywolf) won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction winner Deborah Eisenberg for Your Duck Is My Duck (Ecco), her fifth collection—received $5,000 each. The $1,000 Spotlight Award, for a collection of exceptional merit, went to Akil Kumarasamy for her debut collection Half Gods (Farrar).

The event also marked the publication of The Story Prize: Fifteen Years of Great Short Fiction (Catapult), an anthology featuring a representative piece from each of the winners since the prize’s launch in 2004 (LJ Winter 2018, p. 74).

Story Prize founder Julie Lindsey and director Larry Dark chose the three finalists from among 108 short fiction collections published by 79 publishers or imprints in 2018. The winner was then determined by judges Jo Ann Beard, author of In Zanesville and The Boys of My Youth; Ron Charles, book critic and feature writer at the Washington Post; and Veronica Santiago Liu, founder and coordinator of the collective that operates Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria.

Florida, the judges wrote, “is the work of a mature writer beyond any need to impress us with her stylistic flourishes. Groff tells these stories in clear, deceptively transparent lines laced with insight, wit, and muffled terror.”

“Each of these stories offers a complex, distinct world with its own carefully composed melody,” they added, “but they’re also tuned to vibrate in response to each other.”

Brinkley led off with a reading from A Lucky Man’s title story, a tale characteristic of the collection as a whole and its perceptive look at the inner lives of urban men and boys of color. In conversation with Dark, Brinkley attributed his insight to curiosity and observation—an interest in the people out of the spotlight. While the stories aren’t explicitly connected, he noted, they follow a rough order throughout the book from tales of young boys to older men. Yet he hadn’t originally conceived of them as part of a single collection, Brinkley said; after he had sent his agent seven or eight stories and she told him she thought he was ready to go, his response was, “Go where?” Once he came around to the idea, however, he arranged the stories carefully, with the hope that they would speak to each other in the manner of songs on an album or poems in a collection.

Eisenberg also read from her title story, offering some background on the artist narrator and the faux-Zen parable of the title (“When you finish something you think, ‘How did that get there?’ I have no memory”). That process described her writing process in general, she told Dark, “shuttling words around” and hoping that a story surfaces. “I’m basically trawling,” she explained. She’s also a slow writer, she added, constantly rewriting until she arrives at something that she considers worth her own attention. Her inspiration comes from all over, Eisenberg said, and she’s fortunate to have an excellent in-house reader—her partner, Wallace Shawn, who is empathetic yet clear when he thinks her work isn’t good enough. When it comes to form, Eisenberg considers herself a “vertical” writer. “I’m not really that interested in a classic narrative arch,” she admitted. “I like layering…like a big stack of pancakes.”

Groff wrapped up the evening, reading from “Yport,” about an unnamed woman in France with her two small sons in tow. Almost none of the women at the center of her stories have names, Dark pointed out, often going simply by “the girl” or “the mother.” It’s a way of bringing the story down to its “bare bones,” she explained: “Often when you take away someone’s name you give them a little of a fairy tale aspect.” Part of the joy of fiction, said Groff—herself a mother with two young sons—is the chance to play with autobiography, since as a female writer, readers will imagine she’s writing out of her own experience no matter what. She chose to set many of the collection’s stories in Florida, she added, because “it has a perilous idea of porous safety, dread, anxiety, and danger.” Most of all, said Groff, she wants the stories in a collection to speak to each other below the surface, “like whale song…. I want my collections to be an argument.”

According to the judges, she succeeded. “Groff's collection is a truly immersive experience,” they wrote. “Each story builds upon the last, without being expressly linked, until by the end, the reader experiences the book the way you might experience Florida. Fierce and almost fully deconstructed now in its beauty and awfulness.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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